When coronavirus body slammed the world, the IOC and the government of Japan postponed the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics as the global economy stood punch drunk in the corner, tagged with constant jabs and body blows.

 

As we approach the end of the year, as infection rates continue to soar, a ray of hope has appeared in the form of newly developed vaccines. Will that ray of hope grow into that light at the end of the tunnel IOC president Thomas Bach desperately wants to see?

I hope so.

 

As a footnote, my own 2020 was not a total bust – the Japanese version of my book was published, and I appeared in A&E History Channel’s documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which is about the history of Tokyo from 1945 to 2020. While I was not so prolific this year in my blog, I did write a number of original articles I am proud of.

 

Reasons to Believe

 

Emotional Memories of Japan

 

The Paralympic Movement

Recalling 1980 and the Cold War

1964 Paralympics_US vs Japan basketball. from the book 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, Kyodo News Agency

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”

気持ちは晴ればれ

Only two weeks after the exhilarating Tokyo Olympiad, the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, which ran from November 8 to 12, created an entirely new set of images and impressions on the Japanese psyche regarding notions of what disabled people could do.

 

Hundreds of foreign Paralympians were in Japan, serving as role models in terms of performance and attitude. According to Kazuo Ogoura, in his paper, The Legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, their presence and their bearing were a jolt to Japanese society, which had until then tended to shun people with disabilities. As an administrator of the Paralympic Village put it, according to Ogoura, he remembers his surprise at seeing foreigners with disabilities so happy and full of life.

 

We were stunned to see overseas athletes in wheelchairs, hanging onto the back of a slow-operating Athlete Village loop bus to hitch a ride. It was sheer astonishment to witness their energy, enjoying themselves at a dance party at the International Club, or catching a taxi at night and loading their wheelchairs as well to go to Shibuya’s entertainment precinct.

 

The Japanese athletes who were asked to participate in the 1964 Paralympics likely had very little time to prepare, as the institutionalization of sports for disabled people had only just begun in Japan in the early 1960s. But when placed in a situation that tested their skills on an international platform, Japanese participants felt a rush of elation at being asked to stretch and compete.

 

A Japanese fencer, Shigeo Aono, felt empowered by the Paralympics in Japan, in a life-changing way.

 

Some said we were out of our minds for trying to compete in fencing, a traditional western sport, after just eight months of practice. Yet, we rejected the naysayers, followed through with our intentions and managed to win the silver medal—which gave us a powerful realization that we could do anything if we tried. That sense of confidence gave me strong insight and courage, which has been a guiding force of my life ever since.

 

Japanese discus thrower, Masayoshi Koike, said it more succinctly, “I had so much fun, with my spirit lifted high into the sky.”

 

With confidence came the realization for Japanese athletes that they were not disabled, but enabled. They took heart in seeing how independent the foreign athletes in Tokyo were, refusing assistance from officials and getting around on their own far more than the average disabled Japanese. They also learned that part of being more independent was being more accountable to one’s own health and condition.

 

Another demonstration of overseas athletes’ independent mindset was the day-to-day effort that went into boosting their physical strength and athletic abilities. Japanese athletes were reminded of the importance of maintaining and increasing physical strength in daily life, when they witnessed the large number of injuries sustained by their teammates during the Paralympics. Two Japanese athletes suffered Achilles tendon injuries and fourteen others sustained a range of other injuries during their respective events.

 

The common attitude was to treat anyone with a disability with kid gloves, as people who needed constant care and careful handling. But at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, spectators and television viewers saw that the participants were athletes, not victims. Ogoura highlights this example of one of the swimmers:

 

One female athlete from overseas had to be carried by her husband to get into the swimming pool. When the race started, she was left behind the rest straight away. By the time the first swimmer finished the race, she had only just swum about five meters. She would start sinking, but get back afloat. Rescue staff was swimming about two meters  behind her just in case. When she began sinking after so many times, the rescue staff proceeded to help, but her husband on the poolside used a hand gesture to tell them to stop. Two more meters to go…one more meter…the progress was slow. Applause broke out in the spectators’ stand. After more than three minutes, she finally completed the 25-meter feat. Episodes like this prompted eminent persons and sporting officials to express the opinion that “Disabled sports must be fostered as regular athletic events.”

 

Thanks to these examples, the government also awakened to the possibilities. Seiichiro Ide of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, acknowledging that “Japan had the culture of shunning people with disabilities,” asserted that from then on, “making the disabled more visible in society” was a new goal for the new Japan.

 

Another significant effect of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics was the shift in the medical world, where doctors and institutions began to realize the need to focus more on rehabilitation, not just cure or prevention of disease; that to ignore the state of the disabled, who may have the potential of athletes seen at the 1964 Paralympics, is to ignore the opportunity to bring confidence and joy to a significant part of the population. Ogoura quotes a healthcare worker:

 

Modern medicine focused too much on diseases and ignored people who suffer from them. It was the case of hunters being too busy looking for deer to look at the mountain itself, as they say in Japanese. Take spinal cord injuries for example. If medicine had focused more on achieving patients’ recovery than merely treating the condition, I have no doubt that those with spinal cord injuries today would have enjoyed a higher level of physical recovery, even joining in on the funfair of the Paralympics.

 

The exposure to foreign equipment used by the disabled was also hugely impactful. When the hundreds of foreign Paralympians, coaches, and administrators came to Tokyo in 1964, they brought things that Japanese people had never seen, and immediately set the standard for Japan. Ogoura cited wheelchairs:

 

The greatest technological impact the Paralympics had was on the development and proliferation of equipment and tools for the care of those with disabilities, which were still underdeveloped in Japan at the time. There was a clear performance gap between foreign-made and Japanese wheelchairs and urine collectors, etc. Commenting on this matter, Yutaka Nakamura said, “The difference of wheelchairs was as clear as day.” British sport-use wheelchairs weighed 13 kilograms, whereas Japanese wheelchairs were as heavy as 23 kilograms. Overseas players had wheelchairs made to suit their physique, while Japanese sport wheelchairs were the case of one-size-fits-all.

 

The Japanese could see the difference in performance based on the foreign athletes’ use of the wheelchairs compared to themselves. Said one athlete, “Overseas players are bigger, but very skilled at handling their wheelchairs. We looked more like the wheelchairs were handling us. Then again, the experience gave us confidence that practice would improve our skills.”

 

The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics caused a monumental mind shift in Japanese society. Dr. Yutaka Nakamura, one of the key players in making the Tokyo Paralympics happen, wrote in 1964 something that is the essential message of inclusion today:

 

Our society in general tends to underestimate the capability of people with disabilities. An event like this is significant in that it is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate their capability to the rest of the society.

Entrance to Yoyogi National Gymnasium_photo by Jon Omori

Was it a sign of things to come?

 

After overcoming the fright of a false positive corona virus test, Kohei Uchimura re-tested negative enough times he could compete at the first major international gymnastics competition since the pandemic began wreaking world havoc. When two-time Olympic champion Uchimura landed the dismount after a very strong horizontal bar routine, the announcer was vocal:

The gymnastics world dares to dream! King Kohei – massive work from one of the finest of all time. Oh we’ve waited for that one!

At the age of 31, Uchimura has suffered shoulder injuries and has given up the pursuit of a third all around Olympic championship, but is gunning for gold in the horizontal bar at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. His performance was hopefully a sign of things to come.

 

The International Gymnastic Federation (FIG) certainly hopes so. They brought 30 men and women gymnasts from China, Japan, Russia and the USA together on Sunday, November 8, 2020 to participate in Tokyo at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition.

Photo by Jon Omori

One of the first major international sporting events, this competition held at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium is a test of  readiness – a chance to understand what it takes to hold a sporting event with spectators and participants from multiple  countries, data that will be used to develop operational plans for Tokyo 2020, which was postponed to the summer of 2021.

 

“One goal is to prove that staging a high-profile event in Tokyo is possible in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to FIG, which organized this event.

Another goal is to send a message to athletes around the world who are hoping to make their Olympic teams, and make it to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics.

 

“I’m so happy we can hold this competition with spectators,” said Uchimura, who opened up the competition with a nifty opening vault. “I know this has been tough. But even with the restrictions due to COVID, we can still hold these events, and as athletes we can follow our dreams even with these hardships. For next year’s Olympics, it’s important that we, as athletes, are still able to pursue our dreams.”

 

Jon Omori, special liaison and advisor for the United States Olympic Committee, was present at the competition and noted that the crowd was sparse and social distancing was thus an easy objective. Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which was host to the swimming and diving events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, can accommodate upwards of 13,000 spectators – and yet only 2,000 tickets were sold.

From youtube streaming feed

He said all people entering the arena were given a registration form that reminded them that

  • They had to wear their masks at all times.
  • If they were not feeling well they should contact the nearest staff person.
  • They can find the disinfectants at the entrances, and apply to their hands.
  • And as you move in and out of the arena, ensure you maintain social distance with others.

The form has a QR code which takes them to a LINE survey, in which they are asked such questions as

  • “Is your body temperature above 37.5 degrees?”
  • “Are you showing any cold symptoms, like coughing or scratchy throat?”
  • “Have you had any close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19?”
  • “Are you aware of any cases of family members or close friends who have been suspected of infection?”
Athletes for China’s national gymnastics team in protective gear arrive at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 5 to attend an international competition. (Ryo Kato)

While not all gymnastic teams are taking the precautions that the Chinese gymnastics team have (as you can see in the picture), athletes at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition, in general, seem to be taking fundamental measures of care.

 

Kyodo News says that gymnasts entering Japan had to take PCR tests 72 hours prior to departing their countries, and flew to Japan in chartered planes. They have also been taking daily tests while in Japan. The gymnasts are staying on a floor dedicated to their own team, watched over by security guards. Omori said that the hotels have also dedicated specific entrances and exits for the athletes, to ensure minimal contact with other people.

 

Omori also noted that there were no fixed exits and entrances, or pathways delineated to control traffic flows in Yoyogi National Gymnasium, but that everyone was wearing masks. “Coaches are all wearing masks,” said Omori, “and athletes are too, but take them off before they compete.”

 

In the end, Team Solidarity defeated Team Friendship. 423.6 to 421.3.

 

The real winners?  The gymnasts and athletes around the world who get a strong whiff of hope that Tokyo 2020 will be a reality in 2021.

Friends in the end, from youtube streaming feed
In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”

敗戦国の汚名返上

 

In 1964, Japan was preparing an extravaganza for the world, and they just had to get it right. Over 5,000 athletes from over ninety nations were coming to Tokyo. So were thousands of government and sports officials, members of the press, coaches, athlete-family members and sports fans from all parts of the world. If they could show the world that they were peace-loving, Western-like, modern and eager to contribute, then they could stand tall with the other great nations of the world.

 

Only two decades before, the Japanese were considered Asian upstarts, aggressors, and in some parts, cruel barbarians who would die for the Emperor without a thought. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the biggest coming-out party in Asian history, and Japan wanted to change perceptions, and look its absolute best.

 

Hundreds of known pickpockets were plucked off the streets by police months in advance. Gangs were prevailed upon to send their scarier-looking yakuza out of town. Signs were posted around the city declaring that urinating in the streets or littering would not be tolerated. Bars were closed by midnight. Taxi drivers were advised to drive with “proper traffic manners.” Local citizens brushed up their English and, overcoming their normal reticence, proactively sought out foreign visitors who looked as though they might need guidance. For a while, “May I help you?” was the most commonly heard phrase on the streets.

 

Stories abounded about the lengths to which the Japanese hosts went to look after visitors in need of help. To rescue an Australian couple who had lost bullet train tickets to Kyoto, their hotel voucher and a notice of remittance so they could pick up cash at a local bank branch, the manager of the Japan Travel Bureau at the pier where they docked raised money from his own staff to buy new train tickets, called the hotel and arranged for the couple to stay without the voucher, and made arrangements with the bank so the cash would be made available.

 

When a European prince reported his Dunhill tobacco pouch lost at the equestrian event at Karuizawa, an entire Self-Defense Force platoon combed the 33-kilometer course and found the pouch in less than an hour. A journalist who had dropped his signed traveler’s checks—in a nightclub as it turned out—got them back after the Mama-san spent two days tracing and deciphering his illegible scrawl, and then rang the hotels and the Press House before finally discovering to whom they belonged.

 

Billy Mills, hero of the 10,000-meter event, also came in for some of Japan’s famous omotenashi (hospitality). As a Native-American subjected to his own share of suffering back home, he empathized with his hosts:

 

In Japan, I saw people who were so courteous and polite. I knew underneath there had to be this anger. I could relate to the pain. Almost a sacredness of the way they contained the pain, and the respect they showed. They were like the elders I knew, who controlled their pain, and still showed respect to others.

 

Mills and his wife, Pat, had plans to return to the United States a day before the end of the games and so would not be joining the USOC-arranged transport to the airport. When the USOC refused to make any special arrangements for Billy—an amateur with little discretionary cash in his pocket—he turned to his Japanese hosts, who expressed surprise that the Americans would not take care of a gold medal winner and one of their biggest stars.

 

They picked up our bags, and put them in the largest, widest limousine I had ever seen, with Japanese and Olympic flags up front and an American flag on the back. We took off with two motorcycles escorting us to the airport. We left Japan in style.

 

The XVIII Olympiad was Japan’s big test. And if they passed, they thought, the world would welcome them back with open arms. And they did indeed pass that test, thanks to a stunning alignment of purpose across government, corporations, educational institutions, and local neighborhoods. As Azuma Ryūtarō, Tokyo governor and member of both the IOC and Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee, wrote in 1965:

 

One of the intangible legacies of the Tokyo Olympics is that it gave Japanese people the opportunity to be united for the first time since World War II. Additionally, the Tokyo Olympics succeeded in playing a vital role in connecting the East and West in terms of worldwide peace and sports. As a result, the world began to show greater respect for Japan and its people.

Kiyoko Ono and Takashi Ono in a dining hall at the Olympic Village_PhotoKishimoto

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”

スウェーデンチーム 人命救助へ

 

In pursuit of a greater good, there is often sacrifice, both big and small. In a Japanese culture that prioritizes the group over the individual, keeping personal preferences and needs submerged in order to cater to the perceived interests of the neighborhood, classmates, team members, or colleagues at work are calculations of emotional and social intelligence that Japanese make every day.

 

To the Japanese, the sacrifices the individual must make to the group are most often seen as praiseworthy, symbolic of a powerful value in Japanese society.

 

At the 1964 Olympics, there were two sailors who came in eighteenth overall in a sailing category called the Flying Dutchman (FD) competition. But they came in first in the hearts of the Japanese.

 

On October 14, Stig Lennart Käll and his younger brother, Lars Gunnar Käll, in their boat Hayama, were sailing in the third race of seven in the FD-class competition when they saw a capsized boat ahead of them, and the two crew members floating in the middle of Sagami Bay.

 

Making a quick decision, the Käll brothers steered their way toward Australian sailor Ian Charles Winter, and plucked him out of the water. They then proceeded to the capsized Australian boat, Diablo, to rescue the second member of that crew, John Gregory Dawe, and pulled him into their boat as well. In addition to the Australians, six other boats failed to complete the race, which likely meant rough conditions. And yet, the Swedes, with two extra passengers, still managed to finish the heat.

 

The exploits of the Swedish crew were publicized nationally in the Japanese press. Fans from all over the country sent a barrage of letters and gifts of appreciation to the two Swedish sailors who were singled out for their sacrifice to the greater good.

 

It was also well publicized that the captain of the Japanese women’s volleyball team was making a sacrifice for the good of her volleyball team, as well as for the country. At the age of thirty-one, the team captain, Masae Kasai, was older by about six or seven years than most of her teammates. She had intended to retire from volleyball and get married after leading her team to Japan’s first World Championship in a victory over the Soviet Union in 1962. In fact, some felt that Kasai’s duty to Japanese society, as a woman, was to get married and have children, not to play volleyball. Kasai herself made it clear she wanted to move on and start a family.

 

But in the end, the call for gold and glory for Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was so strong that she decided to delay retirement, and thus surrender herself to two more years of long, punishing hours in the gym. Her sacrifice was eventually rewarded, however, as she did make it to the altar in a highly publicized wedding after the Games ended.

 

Another story was that of Takashi Ono, the legendary veteran gymnast from Akita, Japan, who had already garnered twelve medals (including four golds) from the 1952, 1956, and 1960 Olympiads. At thirty-three, Ono was the oldest member of the 1964 team.

 

Ono’s strongest discipline was the horizontal bar. It was vital he did his best to give his team a chance for gold. But Ono was in considerable pain due to a right shoulder injured in his preparations for the Olympics. To ease the discomfort, he was injected with an anesthetic, which resulted in the loss of feeling in his entire arm.

 

According to Rio Otomo, who wrote about the gymnast in her article, Narratives of the Body and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Ono’s injury was a major narrative of the Olympics, one also taken up by famed writer Yukio Mishima:

 

The horizontal bar had been cruelly attacking his shoulder for some time. His shoulder then became the enemy of the perfection that Ono was aiming to achieve. It was assaulting him from within, as if it had been a spy who sold his soul to the enemy camp.

 

Less known to the public were the apprehensions of Ono’s wife and teammate on the women’s gymnastics team. As Otomo wrote, Kiyoko Ono was concerned that attempting difficult maneuvers in the air with a damaged arm could result in a terrible fall, and so she whispered to her husband as he approached the bar, “Please do not die; we have children.”

 

Not only did Ono survive, the grit he showed that day helped lead his team to the gold medal.

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
日本語版:「原爆っ子」とアメリカへのささやかな抵抗

Seventeen-year-old Dick Roth, winner of the individual medley race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was thirteen years old when he first travelled with the US swim team to Japan in 1960. He remembers being treated like a celebrity. Toward the end of his stay, the team went to Nikko, the beautiful resort town not far from Tokyo. And while walking about the woods with the team, he saw something he clearly remembers today.

I wandered off on my own, which was a habit I have when I travel, skipping the handlers. I was walking back to the lodge and I came face to face with a group of eight to ten horribly disfigured children of my age, probably older. They were from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Later I talked with one of my handlers and asked about them. He said they were also on a tour. The organizers were trying to keep us apart. I was shocked and horrified. To think anyone could do anything so barbaric. I know we dropped the bomb to shorten the war. But it’s a visceral feeling I will never forget.

Back in Tokyo four years later, Roth also remembers the Opening Ceremonies when a sole torchbearer ran into the National Stadium. “The torchbearer came in and there was cheering and a kind of reverence. I don’t know what to call it. The attention was locked on this individual. I was stunned by the switch in the crowd. He got to the top and turned around. It was like another one of those moments that defies description. When he stood there and held the torch high, I was stunned.”

Roth was referring to Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. “When he reached the bottom of the stairs he didn’t stop, just ran up the stairs in stride. He only paused at the top, turning to face the full stadium and the world. He then turned and lit the flame, causing an entire nation a collective moment of pride and sadness.”

It was a bold move. For a country that was trying desperately to erase from its collective memory the horrors of World War II, the Olympic organizers risked offending the United States of America by reminding the world that Japan was the first and only country to be attacked by nuclear weapons.

In fact, prominent Japanophile and translator of such classics as The Tale of Genji, American Edwin Seidensticker, said that the selection of Sakai as the final torchbearer was not “incidental,” and was “unpleasant to Americans.”

When G. D. Sondhi of India, a member of the International Olympic Committee who had just witnessed Sakai’s torch lighting at the opening ceremonies, was asked to comment on Seidensticker’s reaction, he replied, “He (Sakai) is good and I’m happy to see him do it so nicely. We must bring young people in the Olympics and let those old men just sit and help them.” Sondhi went on to say that he did not think Sakai’s selection to be political, and rather thought that Sakai represented “a big hope” for Japan, and that his was “the most touching of all Olympic ceremonies I ever saw.”

Still, it’s amazing that the organizers, on Japan’s biggest day, consciously chose to highlight Hiroshima via Sakai—whom the press dubbed “Atomic Bomb Boy”—a poke in the ribs of the United States.

Superhero Movie

Superheroes often emerge from intense pain and suffering, according to their origin stories.

Jean-Baptiste Alaize was three years old when he witnessed the slaughter of his Tutsi mother at the hands of Hutus during the Burundi Civil War, and he himself fell to four machete blows that resulted in the loss of a leg.

Bebe Vio was eleven years old when she fell in a coma induced by a battle with meningitis, a condition akin to “imploding inside.” A budding fencing star and a ball of energy, the Italian pre-teen had to make the horrible decision to amputate both arms and legs to thwart the advance of the disease.

Tatyana McFadden was born in the Soviet Union with a congenital disorder which paralyzed her from the waist down at birth, in a country that did not officially recognize the existence of disabled people.

However, these three and many others profiled in a recently released Netflix documentary found redemption and achievement in sport. The film, Rising Phoenix, is an impassioned introduction to the Paralympic movement. Layering on top of the powerful theme of Channel 4’s marketing of the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics – We’re the Superhumans! – Rising Phoenix gives Para athletes the Hollywood superhero treatment.

The production values of Rising Phoenix can be described as lavish. Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole is shot dancing under water, rays of light piercing the dark waters. Alaize sits open and relaxed on a spacious couch in an ornate French Baroque setting. South African sprinter Ntandu Mahlangu is interviewed with an actual cheetah in repose at his own cheetah blades. And Vio is filmed lovingly in slow motion, strapped to a wheelchair, lunging and gyrating to angelic music.

And yet when it comes to recognizing the disabled, Rising Phoenix is the exception. Every superhero has a weakness. For Superman, it is kryptonite. For Para athletes, and people with disabilities, it is apathy.

Rising Phoenix is a tale of Two Paralympics, nearly the best of times and the worst of times for the paramount global event for athletes with disabilities. The 2012 London Paralympics were a triumph of the organizers, an event that packed the stadiums and arenas, energized a city, and inspired the world. The 2016 Rio Olympics, as we learn in the film, nearly ended the Paralympic movement.

Rising Rio

Seven weeks before the start of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, then president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. Andrew Parsons was given terrible news by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games – they did not have enough money to run the Paralympic Games.

“Fµ©≤ing hell,” said Sir Philip Craven, then president of the International Paralympic Committee. “There was no money.”

“They are not telling you, we can do that, or we can do that,” said Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC at that time. “They are telling you we cannot organize the games. I couldn’t at that moment see how we could fix it. And that was scary.”

And as potential Rio Paralympians began to understand that the rumors were true, they had that sinking, familiar feeling from childhood, their teenage years, and still today: unfairness, humiliation, helplessness. Said two-time T-44 men’s 100-meter sprint champion, Jonnie Peacock of Team GB, “you just feel like these people don’t view the Paralympics as anything.”

Parsons explained in exasperation how he could not give clear answers to the national Paralympic committees who worried whether the Games would happen or not. But he and the filmmakers were explicit in explaining who was to blame. Speaking over images of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee, including chairman Carlos Nuzman, who was subsequently arrested for corruption and bribery, Parsons said, “forget about these guys, the leadership, because they won’t help.”

Rising Phoenix goes on to tell the nail-biting story of how IPC leadership, Parsons, Craven and Gonzalez, convinced the Brazilian government and skeptical authorities to keep this dream alive not only for over 4,300 Para athletes, but also for 24 million persons of disability in Brazil.

The 2012 London Paralympics is held up as the gold standard for awakening the world to the incredible athletic abilities of Para athletes. But it is the 2016 Rio Paralympics that may have saved the movement. Said Craven, “We’d have really broken the cycle. Confidence wouldn’t have been there in the future. It would (have been) the extinguishing of that Paralympic flame.”

Changing the World

Instead, the flame burns brightly today. Rising Phoenix brings alive the power of the movement, and the dreams of these superheroes.

  • The incredible story of the movement’s founder, Ludwig Guttman
  • The reunification of mother and child as summer Paralympian, Tatyana McFadden wins cross-country silver in the Winter Paralympics in her country of birth, Russia.
  • The dramatic and stirring gold medal victory of ebullient Bebe Vio in wheelchair fencing, who carries you on her shoulders in waves of joy.

“No one stays the same after watching the movie,” said Parsons in a recent interview with 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan. “If ten people watch the movie, ten people will be changed. If ten million people watch the movie, ten million people will be changed. I want the entire world to watch this movie.”

So do I.

Note: All film poster images shared with permission of the IPC.

“I was supposed to be in Tokyo today, rehearsing my opening speech,” said Andrew Parsons wistfully.

It was a little after 8pm on Monday, August 24, 2020 Japan time. Parsons, the President of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), was addressing members of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan in a Zoom meeting. The event marked one year to go for the Tokyo2020 Paralympics.

The Paralympics would have kicked off in Japan on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 if not for the devastating and global impact of COVID-19 virus. It was March 24, 2020 when the fateful decision was made to postpone both the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year. “That decision was not taken lightly, but it was the right one,” said Parsons. “Had the games been tomorrow, there’s no chance they would have happened.”

Putting the Puzzle Back Together

March 24 brought devastating news to the organizers in Japan. Yasushi Yamawaki, IPC Governing Board Member at Large and Tokyo 2020 Vice President said they were more than surprised.

“When the decision was made to postpone the games, most of the staff and partners, were very much shocked. They had spent seven years putting together the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And with a few pieces to go, they were told to start over again.”

There are dozens of major sponsors, over 180 National Paralympic Committees, dozens of international sports federations, and thousands of athletes who had questions. But for the IPC, a huge question that had to be answered was how to ensure funding for Tokyo2020 in 2021. As Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer, explained, it was critical to re-do the contracts with the broadcasters first.

“From an IPC point of view, we had to review 300 contracts in the space of two weeks. We have TV contracts with 165 broadcasters. Each contract needed to be reviewed. And each contract impacted the cash flow of the IPC for 2020 because we were due money this year, but the TV contract was then moved to next year.”

And Parsons reminded everybody that this incredibly complex and urgent work had to be done in the challenging environment of a pandemic. “We had to manage our cash flow,” said Parsons. “But we also needed to work with our staff all over the world, many of whom were living away from their families during the most demanding period ever for the IPC.”

Parsons is hopeful, but he is realistic. He said that everything that can be done, that can be controlled, will be. Planning will continue through the end of September. The IPC will focus on countermeasures to COVID-19 in the last quarter of 2020, and then will enter operational readiness in the first quarter of 2021. After that, important decisions will have to be made.

“We still have one year to go. We will follow the development of the pandemic. Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball. We have to work as if the Games are going ahead. This is the tricky part – how to work towards something you don’t know 100% is going ahead or not. But at the moment we are working full speed ahead preparing for the Games as if they are happening.”

The postponement resulted in a re-planning process that prioritized two things: the safety and health of the athletes and an approach to budgeting only what is necessary, a sustainability mindset that can be applied to future Paralympics, something that Parsons calls the Principles. “In these principles, the safety of athletes Is the number 1 priority for us,” said Parsons. “Everything that is not fundamental for the Games will be downscaled or cut.”

No Question of the Tokyo2020 Legacy

The Paralympics were postponed for a year. But Tokyo2020 is already establishing a legacy in Japan. Yamawaki explained that Tokyo is one of the most accessible cities in the world for the disabled, and that the media showcases the capabilities and personalities of the Para athletes almost on a daily basis.

Spence shared comparative data showing the impact of the run-up to the Games.

“In the build up to London 2012 with 18 months to go, less than 1% of the British population could name a Paralympian, and everyone sees London as the benchmark. In Tokyo last year, 45% of the Japanese population could recognize Shingo Kunieda, the wheelchair tennis player. So that shows the real difference in interest. In terms of accessible transport, I think when Tokyo won the right to stage the Games, around 75% of the city’s metro stations were accessible. By the time the Games happen next year, that’s going to be at 99%. That would never have happened had it not been for the Paralympics coming to Tokyo. The legacies are going to be tremendous.” 

Yamawaki oversees the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which is driving a groundbreaking education program in Japan’s school system. The IPC’s “I’mPossible” program – a toolkit of resources designed to engage 6-12 year old students about the Paralympic movement – is being pioneered in Japan with great success. Yamawaki said that this program has been delivered to 36,000 primary and secondary schools across Japan.

Children can learn from this unique learning opportunity,” said Yamawaki. “They will become future leaders in creating an inclusive society in this country after the Paralympics are over. It’s going to be one of the biggest legacies. Usually the parents teach the children, but in the I’mPossible program, kids teach the parents. This will increase parents’ awareness of the Paralympic Games and Paralympic sports. That’s the biggest impact we’re seeing.”

What You Can Do

Here are a few suggestions from IPC leaders on what we all can do to support the Paralympics broadly, and people with disabilities specifically.

Employ Persons with Disabilities: If your company does not employ persons with disabilities, it should. If your office is not set up to deal with people in wheelchairs, put in ramps. If you have a restaurant or a canteen, make your menus available in braille, or put your information on the internet so that people with disabilities can more easily access the information.

See the Opportunity: As Spence explained, before he joined the IPC, he didn’t realize people with disabilities are such great problem solvers.

“People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They don’t tend to moan. They don’t just sit around thinking I can’t get around this. They always find innovative ways to get around and beat the challenge. They can bring a whole new creativity and new outlook to your business.”

Go See the Games: Seeing the Para athletes in action will change your attitude for life. Get as many people around you to see the Games.

“There’s very few people in the world who can run 100 meters in under 10.5 seconds,” said Spence. “Yet we have athletes with prosthetic legs and running blades who can do it in 10.4 seconds. It really does challenge perceptions towards disability.”

See my review for Rising Phoenix.
Rising Phoenix: The Stirring Netflix Documentary on the Paralympic Movement that Seeks to Change the World

one year to go pins

It’s One Year to Go!

On Friday, July 23, 2021 – 365 days from now –  the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will start!

I hope.

In this time of uncertainty, hope is all we have. No one can guarantee an Olympics in Tokyo. No one knows if the world will be healthy enough to come together in Tokyo a year from now.

With coronavirus infections on the rise in certain regions of the world, in particular the United States, doubt remains. Professional baseball has started in Korea and Japan. Football has commenced in Europe. Baseball, basketball and ice hockey are about to return to the United States. But no can say if they can finish what they start.

In Japan, as the number of infections climb, particularly in Tokyo, public sentiment towards the Olympics next year is running negative. Less than 40% of Japanese in a recent survey stated they would want to attend an Olympic or Paralympic event. This is only a year after over 7 million Japanese bought up nearly 8 million tickets in the opening stage of the ticket lottery, setting the tone for what was arguably to become the most popular Olympics ever.

Today, even if you have tickets, it’s unclear whether you’ll be allowed to go to the events. Right now, it doesn’t look good.

And yet, there’s still one year to go.

We face adversity all the time. Sometimes barriers or problems we face are out of our control, spiraling us into a vortex of hopelessness. But time and time again, we persevere, we see winds shift and fortunes change.

At times, film can powerfully convey our innate ability to overcome. I cite three scenes from movies you know.

First we do everything we can to put ourselves in a position to achieve our goal in the face of adversity. Al Pacino captured this mindset powerfully in his halftime speech to his football team, the film “Any Given Sunday.” He states the reality: “We are in hell right now, gentlemen.” But then tells them that “life is just a game of inches….” and that “the inches we need are everywhere around us,” and that “on this team, we fight for that inch.”

I believe there are many people around the world fighting for those inches, to cure the virus, as well as make sports in general, and Tokyo2020 in particular, safe.

In the final film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo is ready to give up in his quest to save Middle Earth. But his friend, Sam, is not ready to give up on Frodo, literally lifting and carrying him forward.

I believe there are many people around the world willing to carry us when we are down, remind us of better times, and tell us those times will return.

And in the movie, Henry V, Kenneth Branagh brings incredible joy and energy to young King Harry as he wills his ragtag troops to take on the bigger, fresher French army at the Battle of Agincourt. Outnumbered, in the face of what they believe to be certain death, the men of England are inspired by King Henry to imagine a world when they have survived this battle and lived to a ripe age, telling their children of the scars they got and the feats they achieved that miraculous day in France.

I believe there are many people who see in their mind’s eye a packed stadium, a field filled with the best athletes in the world, and a brilliant blue sky, telling us all that anything is possible, including a Summer Games in 2021.

If there are people who fight for that inch,

If there are people who carry us when we need them,

If there are people who paint us a picture of a glorious future,

then there is hope.

See you in Tokyo, in a year.

Max Whitlock sofa
Max Whitlock showing off in a new sport – pommel couch.

Two-time Olympian and five-time medalist in gymnastics for Team GB, Max Whitlock, has been helping his gymnastic colleagues stay in shape with his #GymnasticsWithMax series. On a lighter note, he showed a new event he created – “pommel couch.”

The first Team USA sports climber selected for Tokyo2020 was Brooke Raboutou, who has been keeping sharp by getting around her house without touching the floor. Here she is getting a snack.

Oktawia Nowacka, the bronze medalist in modern pentathlon at the 2016 Rio Olympics, stays in shape at home in Starogard Gdanski Poland with a variety of exercises that require s litle open space, furniture, resistance bands and a dog.

Retired javelin thrower, James Campbell, raised GBP26,000 by running the equivalent distance of a marathon in his garden. April 1 was his birthday so he decided to do celebrate in a most monotonous manner – circling the grounds of his 6-meter long garden area for over five hours. Campbell from Chelthenham, England set the Scottish record in the javelin throw at 80.38 meters, which stands today.

 

Mary Pruden is a sophomore swimmer at Columbia University who gave it her all in a 100 individual medley race. So inspiring were Pruden’s efforts that sports broadcasters Dan Hicks and Rodney Gaines dubbed their play-by-play onto Pruden’s video, this “race of the century.”